Why not?

I’ve been asked to explain “why” we’re getting people together in our community raising series.  My answer has typically been “why not?”  The answers to that question reveal more about the asker’s sense of optimism and, more than likely, that they are great candidates for more community face time.  For your consideration…

How many times a year, a month, a week do you sit down at the dinner table with friends and family and have a conversation?  If you do, you know the sense of connection when conversation becomes free-flowing and meaningful exchanges take place.  Sitting down to eat with other people can be an inspiring, creative experience.  Plus, reaching up and out as a group is sustainable, encouraging and fun.  And that brings me to what we at home&community inc get out of holding this kind of gathering and how it’s related to our overall goals.

We need to meet with and reach out to other people so we can remember, appreciate and care about other people. Simple right?

Our community food system and homesteading project relies upon this truth.  For so long, it has felt like everyone is trying to do something but little is coordinated.  Or there are a bunch of hoops when it’s a simple concept of growing and sharing.  Between the universities, schools, community garden associations, food/homesteading bloggers, backyard gardeners, restaurants, us…it’s just overwhelming.  After our last community raising dinner and all the meaningful conversations there, we took a deep breath and decided — in the immortal words of Nike — to just do it.  We’ve got some land, we’ve got some seeds, we’ve got major Home Ec skills, we’ve got a bunch of people that are ready to learn, we’ve got you and everyone who’s ready to get ideas in motion.  And we’ve got it all on a pared down, intimate, personal and meaningful scale.

We’re doing less, so we can accomplish more.

Our new sites are smaller and manageable to make it easier to have a meaningful exchange with the low-income residents we serve.  We’ll coordinate training and production at these smaller, close-knit sites.  Each site will know its own, local needs — what kind of distribution plan  (ie: how much to neighbors, how much to market), what kind of homesteading programs (ie: canning, nutrition, sewing, cleaning products), etc.  All with the added benefits of helping residents develop marketable skills and entrepreneurial opportunities.

So, our effort is to get folks to the table (literally) to eat, talk and create.  Once you get going, it’s easy, makes perfect sense and feels right.  It all begins with baby steps.  For instance, resist the temptation to send an email.  Write to someone on paper every now and again (on recycled, homemade or seed-filled paper!). Resist in little and big ways.  When we do, we might just grow something…because resistance is fertile!


What is the currency of community?

Why give?  A lot of organizations ask prospective donors that question. But we don’t think we need to tell people why to give.  Instead, we wanted to talk about why we’re asking.

In a few weeks, we’re holding the first fundraiser we’ve ever organized for ourselves.  It’s even weird to us that, after over ten years in business, we’re throwing our first fundraiser…ever. Why now? Well, we’ve spent most of the past decade helping a bunch of other folks.  And no doubt about it, it has been fulfilling and great.  Then, we started a new project last year — our OriginalGreen project — envisioned as a true community project.  It has definitely become that, but we’re always looking for ways to enhance and further that aspect.  Fundraising has to be supported and created by the community, too.

community currency

So, here’s why we’re asking…

  • First, we believe we’re advancing some pretty reasonable ideas that benefit a lot of people.  Common sense activities for securing fresh produce and cutting out household toxins deserve advancing.
  • Second, everything we’ve talked about in this blog, we’re actually getting into communities!  Community gardens, community supported kitchens/cooking, homemade cleaning supplies, and yardsharing.
  • And finally, we’ve never wanted only to take in money and then go do what we do. We want to create a community of sharing whose members donate funds to activities they can directly participate in. People should have venues not just for networking and learning about each other, but for sharing a “community” meal while they do so.  Breaking bread always seems to make us friendlier.  Especially in an intimate setting, with comforting music…and stimulating conversation.  Let’s talk one-on-one and get to know others in our communities who are working on things we are (or should be) interested in! Share ideas, share goodwill, share time.

Well, apparently (and unsurprisingly), we are totally unoriginal in this last idea! Not only have many others already come up with a good way for making this happen, some have encouraged others to “borrow” it.  The Brooklyn-based FEAST organization holds “a recurring public dinner designed to use community-driven financial support to democratically fund new and emerging art makers.”  Our first fundraiser (did we mention EVER?) is going to allow us to educate low-income people about green cleaning and homesteading, establish and maintain garden/yard sharing communities and initiate a dinner series to democratically fund local groups dedicated to these activities.

We’re keeping it small.  We’ve limited it to 50 attendees. This isn’t the currency of tons of dough but the currency of face-to-face interaction.  Building the value of community.

And that…is why we’re asking.

Making it

A few weeks ago GOOD asked the question:  what do you make or grow instead of buy? So I decided to make my own list.  And I wanted to do it with our clients in mind.  As it turned out, it was really easy to start a list, because we’ve been talking a lot here about the ways we can simplify and reduce.  But, in starting my own list I realized that even though there are a bunch of things I’ve given up, there is still a lot more I could.

If you’ve recently discovered us, you’ll notice a lot of the focus has been on issues of food security.  But, our OriginalGreen project grew out of encouraging use of natural cleaners in low-income households.  In fact, we still distribute clean kits with our Clean recipe book.  I’m sure this is why most of the “made” things on my list relate to cleaning products, as that is what I’ve been making the longest.  So, here goes…

The things I no longer buy, because I make them are: laundry detergent; dishwashing liquid; all-purpose cleaner; oven cleaner; air freshener; facial astringent/toner/cleanser; furniture polish; bug spray.  Then there is butter, along with pies, cookies, muffins, pizza (all still requiring flour, which I’m not brave or patient enough to produce yet).  Wrapping paper, cards and notebooks are on the list, too.

The things I grow or glean include: various bell / chili peppers; squash; scallions; basil; peppermint; rosemary; lavender; platanos; tomatillos; oranges; lemons; peaches; apples; and avocados.

Doing these things makes me feel less wasteful and more conscious of the areas where I still am.  I was actually surprised at the length of the list, but very much aware that it isn’t as long as a true homesteader’s!  I don’t buy pre-packaged meals and don’t own a microwave, but I’d like to use the clothes dryer less and sew a bit…slow down a little more, in general…maybe make my own pasta.

Some of this “making” has become really easy.  And often, once mixed, products last three and four times longer than pre-packaged items.   The recipe book has been fairly easy to introduce to clients.  We are working on a comparable plan for food security and nutrition, and have already addressed the issues of time and cost in a prior post.  So right now, it’s also about simplifying and reducing in other ways.

You’ve seen my list.  But what about yours?  What kinds of things do you make instead of buy? And better yet, what will you?

Homemaking after the apocalypse

What would most people do in the face of the apocalypse? Okay, maybe just in the face of having minimal access to resources? That was our thought after reading a tweet from a Twitter friend this week.  In 140 characters she said “Put Home Ec back into curriculum. It’s sorely needed — we need EVERYONE to be better at cooking their own food, mending, fixing etc.”

We agree, more Home Economics.  More self-sufficiency.  But, it can’t be the one most of us remember. Not just girls, not just sewing curtains and ruffly skirts and hems, not just making a béchamel sauce, not just home management.  It also can’t just be the one promoted by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (the only organization dedicated to Home Ec professionals).  The AAFCS curriculum includes instruction on family values, resource acquisition and management, diet, conflict resolution, parenting skills and pregnancy prevention.  (I definitely do not remember the last one in my Home Ec classes.)

A new Home Economics has to include real, century 21 stuff like general finance management, basic handy work (sewing and structure repair), cooking and growing local food and cleaning with natural products.

Some have tried to fill the void by providing online homekeeping resources, or opening storefronts to encourage homecrafts (sometimes with don’t-miss-the-point names).  Others have created “upscale Home Ec” programs to teach urban kids how to make baby mesclun salad and cilantro bay scallops.  But a new Home Ec needs to be century 21 and relevant.

The first issue is getting that kind of Home Ec into schools when so many programs (anyone remember Art?) are being cut.  Well, what about linking it to the school garden movement? As kids learn about growing food, why not teach them nutrition (an apple is better than apple juice) and cooking and household time management?  I mean, cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be time consuming.  I can make a zillion things from scratch in the same time it takes to put together a complete meal from pre-packaged items. And, I don’t even own a microwave. Shoooot, don’t tell me about time!

Maybe finance management, natural cleaning, sewing and structure repair can be included in school garden time as: marketing produce; natural pest abatement and surface disinfection; work aprons or dish insulators; arbors and sheds.

Home Ec can further integrate sustainability into students’ home life by bringing into the home what wasn’t passed down from parents. I was lucky, I saw both grandmothers garden, built things with my father, and my mother made a huge percentage of my clothes (although I was totally bummed out by the “designer” jeans she made with my own name on them in 1979.  SW on the pocket was not Sasson.)  Kids probably don’t want handmade jeans, but being able to fix a hole instead of buying a new “one of whatevers” is invaluable.  Cleaning without toxins, not only keeps you healthy but is way cheaper ($2 for several months worth of cleaner versus $12 for a few bottles of pre-packaged cleaner).

The apocalypse? I know I would be okay because I can cook and grow lots of things from scratch.  I can sew (I’ve got a sewing machine AND needles, gasp!), and I’ve done plumbing, drywalling and even a little whittling.  Heck, I was even the only girl in shop class…but that’s another blog.  The question is, would you be okay? (No, you can’t come to my house.)

Time to clear the air…

Part of our overall strategy to bring sustainable practices to low-income communities includes improving indoor air quality (IAQ).  For a lot of organizations working on IAQ in affordable housing, that means advocating for better building materials. There are several programs and certifications that require green materials in the construction and maintenance of buildings.  Best known among these is the LEED certification developed by the US Green Building Council.

When we first heard about the USGBC’s new certification for affordable housing, we were ecstatic.  Okay, maybe really, really happy.  Finally, green standards for affordable units. Finally, improved living conditions for low-income residents. The EPA ranks indoor air pollution the fourth highest public health risk – often worse to breathe than outdoor air. Many toxins are in the structure itself (carpet, fiberboard, paint), which the imposition of green construction standards addresses.  But, other toxins include pesticides, smoke and cleaning solvents, which are resident driven.

The LEED certification does not include a requirement in its rating system for educating residents about ways to improve indoor air quality.  When we saw this article on LEED yesterday, it was like wow, someone else is finally talking about this IAQ thing.  Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the certification included a requirement for improving environmental health and maybe even educating residents.  We would love (yes, love, not just really, really like) a program like that — whether it mandated a full-on Promotora program, like at Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, where residents are trained to educate other residents about green cleaning, or an in-home environmental intervention conducted by a health organization, or even an introductory talk required of all new residents, to explain the benefits and ease of using natural products to clean their homes.

But, and this is a big but, the fact is LEED is a building and construction standard.  It isn’t about resident lifestyles.  But, much in the way cities require builders to meet certain LEED standards, maybe those cities can also make education about improving indoor air quality (whether for residents or commercial tenants) part of the local requirement to receive tax credits and other incentives.  People can be encouraged to use natural products (baking soda, vinegar, lemon, air filtering plants) and all commercial cleaning/maintenance would be required to be green certified.

We’ve written a Clean Cookbook with recipes for naturally cleaning everything from ovens to toilets.  And, we post a new Clean Recipe nearly every Tuesday on our OriginalGreen Facebook page (under the Discussions tab).  Soon, we’ll deliver this book to residents in housing developments along with a few natural products to get them started.

Our ultimate goal is to change policy in green building and standards for low-income and affordable housing, so that they mandate this type of education.  It’s great that the building is “green” but when the indoor air quality in some units can be 100 times more polluted than outdoor air quality, we think it’s time to clear the air and fulfill what we call a “whole home” philosophy.

Following Leaders 6/4

Man oh man, we just love all our Twitter friends.  Everyone’s great, really, check our list and see if you’re not following a bunch of the same peeps! (You should be!) This week — as we were grantwriting for small groups (and our own pursuits), adding to our list of community gardens in public housing, and designing a food mapping protocol, (and, ugh, keeping up on HOPE VI) — a few of our 199 friends really caught our virtual eye.

It was exciting to see environmentally responsible low-income housing, and community building among the homeless and housed. A link about pesticides led to more research on produce cleaning methods (and confirmed some prior research).  We even had a few friends who fed our foreign language (and sports) jones!

Thank you again…

@Sustainablog – for focusing on 5 green low-income housing developments (we’re following construction like this to seek mandates for community gardens or encourage home growing in these developments).

@PHCSF – for wonderful work on the Growing Home Community Garden providing a setting for homeless and housed to work side-by-side to create community.

@seasonalwisdom – for “wise” ideas about fruit on the grill, grass/lawn alternatives and avoiding pesticide-riddled celery.

@meredithmo – for hipping us to the urban vineyard in Ohio, especially since our mapping protocol looks at the use of urban space and job creation (for traditionally unemployable populations).

@LaOpinionLA –para la cobertura de la Copa del Mundo en 140 caracteres o menos (nuestro distracción de la semana)!  for World Cup coverage in 140 characters or less (our diversion of the week)!

@hyperlocavore – pour tendre la main a tous les gens qui parlent francaise ET partagent leur jardins!  for reaching out to all the people who speak French AND share their yards!

Blech + a = bleach

This week, the powers that be (PTB) at our OriginalGreen project got sick.  We don’t know what it was, but it was mercifully short (a mere 48 hours) and only marked by a high fever (apparently 103.8 in an adult is bad).  In researching ways to keep areas clean and safe from any icky things the PTB might spread, we kept getting the same solution: bleach.

May is Asthma Awareness Month in the U.S., and May 4th was World Asthma Day. It’s also Clean-Recipe Tuesday at our OG project, so it seemed the universe was conspiring to have us talk about this bleach thing.

Do you really have to use it?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No. Okay, longer answer…Bleach, the typical household chlorine bleach, contains about 5% sodium hypochlorite. It can exacerbate or trigger respiratory problems like asthma.  It can make a lethal gas if mixed with ammonia. It can be toxic to fish if it reaches the waterways. Some studies show reproductive and neurological toxicity in humans.

What to use then? Three percent hydrogen peroxide can be added to laundry whites instead of bleach. Use it to sterilize cuts and abrasions. A teaspoon in a cup of water and you’ve got mouthwash. For killing bacteria like E.coli on produce, and for sanitizing food prep surfaces against Salmonella, Shigella and E.coli, spritz hydrogen peroxide and follow with a spritz of vinegar. (Keep them in separate containers.)  Obviously, there are places where infection control regulations demand use of bleach – hospitals, schools, public pools, etc.  But, your home (presumably) isn’t one of them!

If you’d like something called “bleach,” there’s non-chlorine bleach – sodium percarbonate/perborate — and places like Ecover, Seventh Generation and Shaklee carry versions.

For even more bang for your non-bleach buck – buy unbleached products.  It’s commercial bleaching activities that significantly pollute the environment.

So, the PTB wiped everything down with our non-bleach solution, and nobody – sea monkeys, indoor jalapeños, assorted humans – said blech.  We bet you won’t either.

Ten years down…

February 2000, I was working for a Washington, D.C. non-profit, as an organizational development specialist. A fancy title for someone helping low-income people organize around housing policy issues in their communities. Thanks to the President, most know it as “community organizer.”

For two years beforehand, I worked with residents in 45 states. I even traveled to 30 or so of them (yep, even Hawai’i). I loved rabblerousing and working with people. It was great…then came February. I was told the program I was organizing was transitioning into something else. Less housing oriented, more jobs focused.

I’ve never been one to just “let things happen” to me or the things I care about.  I knew there was still housing work to be done.  There always is, right?  So, me being me, I decided to start my own non-profit. How hard could it be?  Submit some documents, tell a story, find some board members, register here, open an account there. And surprisingly, by May 5, 2000, I was in line at the corporations division getting incorporated. Three months later, we were an official 501c3 non-profit.

Do things really happen that fast?  They can. But I know sometimes they don’t. It’s been ten years.  People still suffer from poor housing conditions.  People still don’t have enough to eat.  People still need help.

So, on this tenth birthday, I’m happy we’re still here to help. And happy for opportunities to show how affordable housing relates to good health and less hunger.  It’s an added reward that the benefits of the green revolution stretch across race, gender and socio-economic status. Indeed every cleaning method and food security idea we share is good for everyone. Low-income people benefit most because their resources are already so limited.  And, being “green” is as old school and cheap as it gets.  Remember (or at least did you learn about) Victory Gardens? How did great grandmama get things spotless?  Everything old really is new again.  And I am loving guiding home&community inc through it all.

Happy Birthday to us, and so long as there’s a need, many, many more…

Good, clean fun

In a prior post, we talked about why we focus on cleaning products. So, today, we consider disinfectants.  You know them by names like Lysol, Clorox, PineSol, Brillo, Ajax, Spic and Span and others.  They’re used to reduce or eliminate germs.  Unfortunately, all that germ killing comes with a toxic price. (Did you know Lysol and Clorox bleach are considered pesticides by the EPA?) Many products consist of chemicals like phenol, chlorine, quaternary ammonium (quat what?), aldehydes, formaldehyde…you get the picture.

Several of the chemicals in cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  This group of chemicals releases organic compounds into the air in your home.  They also contribute to indoor air that is often more polluted than outdoor air — in even the most industrialized cities.

And, here’s an amazing statistic for you: about 25 gallons of toxic products per year are used in the average American home (Hirschorn and Oldenburg).

What can (should) you use instead?  There are plenty of ways to clean naturally, with inexpensive products like baking soda, vinegar, borax, salt and lemon.  Every Tuesday, on our OriginalGreen page on Facebook, we list cleaning methods with these ingredients. In fact, we call the concoctions “recipes.” So far, we’ve covered ovens, sinks, laundry and insect repellant, with more to come.

Another option is to purchase from companies that create safe and environmentally-responsible products like Method, CleanWell and Seventh Generation, to name a few.

At the end of the day, toxic products might make it easier to clean, but they don’t necessarily do a better job. That’s why our mantra is: green cleaning requires faith and elbow grease!

Next time, we’ll talk about detergents (surfactants) – and more opportunities for good, clean fun! Meanwhile, go battle those germs…the natural way.

What can one person do?

That is often the question we hear when we talk to people about what we’re doing and what still needs to be done out there.  Well, it’s actually really easy to do something.  It doesn’t have to be big or involved, either.  Think about it, a lot of people doing small things adds up to a big deal.

You can begin by asking questions. When we started the OriginalGreen project, it was a result of seeing low-income residents suffering from health problems for which there were simple actions for improvement.  We asked questions about how to get the outcomes we wanted.  One of the first steps was to start what we call a “question tree”: begin from the trunk and move to the branches then leaves.  Trunk: Why were our clients having health problems?  Branches: Why didn’t they have better food? Why didn’t they have better access?  Why was there so much indoor air pollution? What toxins could be eliminated? Leaves: Where are the nearest healthy food options?  What products could be substituted for cleaning?

Those leaves led to compiling farmers markets that accept SNAP/EBT benefits, negotiating and securing CSA and community garden plots, and instituting green-clean training.  That’s what we are doing…so far.


Of course you can make your tree, too.  Meanwhile, here are some ideas about the little and big things you can do to help us help residents.  Remember, not everything requires a large time commitment or volunteering.

Healthy eating options:

  • Eat locally.  This means support your local food growers.  Food is often safer (fewer preservatives and chemicals), has traveled less and contributed less to pollution, puts money in the local economy, and importantly helps low-wage earners who work the supply chain.
  • Join or support a community garden or CSA.  Community gardens exist in every state.  The American Community Garden Association defines it as “any piece of land gardened by a group of people.”  CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a community of people (usually urban dwellers) who support a local farm by purchasing a weekly share of the harvest. Just like eating locally, these actions support local food growers and help them expand programs to low-income and homeless people.  But they also have the added benefit of enhancing your relationship with neighbors!  You can also donate a garden share to a low-income individual or groups serving them.
  • Shop at your farmers markets.  For the same reasons above.  But also to encourage them to stay and continue serving the community.  The longer they keep going, the more opportunities low-income people have to learn about and use them.
  • Grow food!  Even a small plot or containers will yield a nice amount.  Start a yardsharing co-op with neighbors, or take your extra produce to a local pantry.   And share your success story with us so we can help our clients.
  • Advocate and educate with us.  Learn the issues as we discuss them here and on Facebook and share the good word.  Forward and retweet our posts. Ask your farmers market if it accepts SNAP/EBT. Leave comments on relevant news articles you read and write letters to lawmakers.

Improving indoor air quality:

  • Start using clean products in your home.  The more of us using less of the bad stuff creates less demand, and companies will have to modify the product or stop selling it.  Encourage your friends and family to do the same.  We’re providing “clean recipes” every Tuesday on Facebook.
  • Donate green seal cleaners.  You can buy and donate items to local affordable housing developments or transitional housing.  Find out what products have the Green Seal of approval.
  • Donate indoor house plants. These can also be donated to local affordable housing developments.  Ask your local nursery if they have a donation program.
  • Advocate and educate with us.  Same as above!

So, you see…there is so much one person can do!  Build a tree: ask your questions, find your solutions, get going!